Solving the Puzzles of the New Testament
When I got the idea of a short article about understanding the New Testament, I started to mentally list some of the puzzles and enigmas that exist in this small library. There are many! I began reviewing how different people deal with the stories there, and the new theological ideas that truly “soar to the heavens” and plumb the depths of the human condition. I realized that to even lay out some of the key enigmas, or the concepts that have captured the hearts of so many through 20 centuries, while remaining “foolishness” (Apostle Paul) to so many others, would itself take more than a whole post.
So I’ll suggest just one of the most explored issues, at or near the core of so many others: Just who was Jesus Christ?
There is the human Jesus, the real man who gained a rather small following, initially, in what became our “first century” thanks to his very existence (plus what the New Testament made of him). There is the kingly or even cosmic, divine Christ (Messiah expected by the Jews), so cleverly elevated to cosmic savior status by Paul first, then by “John” and others.
Some of my own previous posts have explored the many fascinating aspects of how people “way back then” understood and followed Jesus the Christ and how their influence carries powerfully forward to this very day. For today I’ll suggest one simple but heavily loaded concept for your thought and comment: In a very general way, those who focus mainly on Jesus the man and seek to follow him, as a man, operate from a different worldview than do those who focus mainly on Christ the “Second Person” of the triune God.
I won’t take time to go into the vast implications of one’s “worldview” or concept of the nature of reality beyond that statement itself. It’s hard to overstate or “over-imagine” its impact.
As powerful and generally consistent are our worldviews, our minds do not consistently interpret everything we encounter in terms of a set-in-concrete worldview…. Our worldview can and does change — on rare occasions, radically and quickly. But, especially on a conscious level, our thinking seeks consistency. We set up a basic interpretative system for life and events around us (or coming to us from ancient books), usually by our late teens or early twenties. We then generally work (often without thinking about it except during religious services or philosophy courses) to keep it stable…. We need a mostly-constant framework or “interpretive lens” through which to see the world and ourselves.
So what is the worldview of each of the different points of focus, the different “Jesuses” that people follow (and with them, different deciphering of New Testament puzzles)? The big-picture angle is what is often called supernaturalism. It’s not just about that God exists but what kind of God exists. It’s not just that there is something beyond the natural realm but that “the God who is there” intervenes in a fore-planned way in human affairs. God gives “revelation” through “his” chosen people and certain prophets among them. This is how we know about God “himself” and what God expects of us.
The opposite and somewhat-less-common wide-angle worldview is naturalism. Within this perspective, for some Christians, Jesus is a great moral teacher and example but only human, not a divine savior. It is not, however, religious people who have propelled this vision of the world and how “reality” works into cultural prominence, understandably. It is scientists and other secularists. While fewer people hold this view in the US, it is what the world operates through more than supernaturalism — business and general culture in addition to the vastly influential enterprise of science.
These two paradigms seem to cover all the options. In one sense they do. But are we forced to view things just one of two ways? One, as though God intervenes and has given us both an historical and predictive record of where we’ve been and where we’re going, with how to please God, be “saved”, etc., along the way. The other, as though no God exists, nothing “higher” or more guiding of life than random selection and “laws of nature” that come from who-knows-where.
Thankfully, there are other ways of understanding reality and of conceiving of whatever God may be there. These can and often do take the Bible seriously… they find inspiration and wisdom aplenty in both the “Old Testament” (as do both Jews and Christians) and the “New Testament”. (I generally place in quotes when using these long-conventional terms for what are perhaps less presumptuously called Hebrew Scriptures and Greek Scriptures.) Yet they have more interest and more flexibility to make sense of the many puzzles of the New Testament… of accounting for the surprising rise of Christianity within what is mostly a cloud of obscurity.
Did God supernaturally send Jesus as a sacrifice for the sins of all humanity? To defeat the powers of darkness? Did God attest to this and to the authority of a small group of Apostles with numerous miracles in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and in their ministries? Or did God have nothing to do with any such reported events and didn’t send Jesus because no God is there to do this? Put as either-or, as does the main contentions of typical supernaturalism and naturalism, we often “submit” and pick one or the other, or vacillate as we alternately believe and doubt.
However, there are other ways to understand God, taken partly from clues about God in the Bible, along with those from the wider world. One developed view I will discuss in the next post. It rejects the notion that either God intervenes in powerful ways, at least on occasion (usually believed to be frequent in personal lives), or there is no God to intervene and we only imagine certain events to be interventions. Some of the puzzles of the New Testament can be much better solved and a more realistic view of the beginnings of Christianity be gained, along with that of the authority of “The Church” (read either as Roman Catholic or whatever).